Arab Progressives Become Conservative on Peace with Israel
Sarde after Dinner, a YouTube talkshow, offers a sneak peek into the thinking of Lebanon's secular elite
Arab elite are Westernized, secular, middle class kids who went to top private schools and gained access to tools of knowledge otherwise unavailable to the rest of the population. Training in human sciences allowed these secular Arabs a choice: Either use their knowledge for progress and wage a battle for the modernization of their native societies or conserve tradition by upholding the status quo and defending their tribe’s collective wisdom and established norms.
By and large, Arab elite have chosen to be progressive and have been advocating for free relations between the sexes and for rights of women and the LGBTQ. Arab Progressives have also been a leading voice against corruption of their governments.
Peace with Israel, however, has been the only issue where most Arab Progressives behave conservative, at times even radically opposing any recognition of the Jewish state. Here, Progressives join ranks with the most religious and conservative sectors, and peddle ideas to the effect that Arabs should be fighting Israel to the bitter end, regardless of the cost or the open-ended commitment. Endless war thus becomes a life style for most Arabs, a death cult of sorts.
In going conservative against Arab-Israeli peace, Arab Progressives have been empowered by their Western counterparts, who seem to have run out of issues to campaign and have made of restoring indigeneity a cause that they think can reverse past Western injustice.
In an Arab context, however, restoring indigeneity means allowing polygamous and underage marriages, undermining LGBTQ and women’s rights (Taliban and Afghanistan are as indigenous as indigeneity can get) and strangling liberty in general. So why are Arab Progressives toeing a conservative line on the Palestinian issue?
The most probable answer is that fighting for modernization and peace with Israel wins Arab intellectuals domestic enemies and exposes them to social shaming, physical harassment, and at times costs them their lives. However, practicing populism, by defending collective wisdom and endless war with Israel, earns intellectuals social praise, popularity, and physical security.
Sarde after Dinner is a Lebanese YouTube talk show that offers a sneak peek into the thinking of Arab Progressives. A few episodes cross the million views mark, like the one with former porn star of Lebanese origin Mia Khalifa. Other shows do not fare as well, despite the star power of the interviewee, such as the one with Egyptian surgeon-turned-comedian Bassem Youssef.
On the Lebanese political spectrum, Sarde belongs to the extinct March 14 movement, a coalition that benefited from America’s drive to spread democracy globally and ejected from Lebanon forces of the Syrian Assad dynasty, in 2005, after 29 years of occupation.
March 14 was betrayed by regional and global allies, and physically beaten by Hezbollah in a quick round of civil war in 2008. Since then, March 14’s leading dynasty, the Hariris, never recovered, leaving the Sunnis of Lebanon – the country’s biggest bloc at 28 percent of the population – leaderless. Since then, Shia Hezbollah, at 27 percent, has been ruling Lebanon with an iron fist, prompting many to protest the militia’s dominance and demand it be disbanded.
Hezbollah cracked down on dissent, accusing opponents of treason and working for America and Zionism. With America not lending the anti-Hezbollah faction support, Lebanon’s dissidents were forced to play the game by Hezbollah’s rules— internalizing the myth that Israel was an absolute evil whose name should never be uttered.
Recognition of and peace with Israel, in return for Israeli concession of 1967 territory for the establishment of a Palestinian state, has been the official position of the Lebanese State since 2002, in line with the Arab League’s Peace Initiative. But even endorsing the state’s policy of offering Israel conditional peace has become a bridge too far for Lebanon’s secular intellectuals to cross.
To prove their patriotism, Lebanese intellectuals started vilifying Israel, even if such position did not fit with their overall demand for the neutrality of Lebanon and the revival of the 1949 truce with Israel.
In July, Sarde interviewed a Lebanese comedy duo who, together with the show’s anchors Medea and Mouin, complained of how the Beirut International Airport smelled like sewers while its restrooms had no toilet paper. It does not take a lot of interviews to show that Lebanon is a failed state. And yet, when Hamas massacred 1,200 Israelis on October 7, Sarde felt an urge to focus on the Palestinian cause, reasoning that it wins precedence over Lebanon’s problems.
It thus broadcast two episodes, one was a chatter between the two anchors and their two producers. Team Sarde looked totally out of depth, presenting a show riddled with contradictory messages, held together by a single theme: Israel is evil, and will eventually disappear and Palestinians will have their state.
Team Sarde argued that every human on the planet should put political considerations aside when they see images of dead Palestinians, including children. Humanity in absolute terms, however, does not apply to the Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis on October 7. That massacre should not be viewed with a pure humanitarian lens but should be put in its political and historic context. In short, when Palestinians die, the world has to forget the politics and react on a humanitarian basis. When Israelis die, Sarde team wants its viewers to put on their politics and history glasses and conclude that these Israelis were at fault, and therefore killing them was not such an outrageous act after all.
The glaring failure in logic and ethics notwithstanding, team Sarde blamed the world for not giving Palestinians enough attention, then said a surge in viewership of pro-Palestinian shows proves that global support for Palestinians has been on the rise, prompting Western media to offer more pro-Palestinian coverage, not out of sympathy with Palestinians but out of pure financial interests.
One of the producers, who said she had earned a BA and MA in political studies, claimed that Israel was a consociational democracy, just like Lebanon, and that neither of the two countries were actual democracies. The show then devolved into bashing democracy as a model, and all democracies around the world. Does Sarde prefer and Hezbollah and Assad’s autocracies instead?
The peak of Sarde’s confusion came when its team insisted that Lebanon war with Israel would be too costly for Lebanon. “A building collapsed in [the village of] Mansouriyah,” said a Sarde producer. “It took rescue crews weeks to get all the survivors and dead out, due to the lack of resources.” If war broke out with Israel, the Lebanese would just die under the rubble, the producer concluded.
The Hezbollah militia has usurped the Lebanese state and its decision-making process, Sarde complained, does not consult with the Lebanese over issues of war and peace. But when the Hamas militia – also unaccountable to Palestinians – launched its October 7 attack, no cost should have been assessed before or after, only history, emotions, and vilification of Israel.
Throughout the show, team Sarde callously threw in legal terms, accusing Israel of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and of committing a Holocaust in Gaza. In the episode that followed, Sarde interviewed Lebanese-French academic Ziad Majed, who warned against using such terms nonchalantly or else they would lose their meaning and value. Majed, one of the most talented Lebanese intellectuals, used all the weapons in his arsenal to vilify Israel. His arguments looked strong and flawless, but neither objective nor foolproof.
Team Sarde knows that the interest of Lebanon is best served when war with Israel is avoided. Perhaps if Sarde knew that it could push for more, without being punished by Hezbollah, it would have argued that Lebanon’s peace with Israel, whose economy is the size of that of prosperous United Arab Emirates, would be a pure Lebanese gain. Even after Lebanon’s peace with Israel, Sarde can continue to call for humanitarian solidarity with Palestinians, just like the Jordanians and the Egyptians do.
If Sarde and the Lebanese intellectual elite cannot put their finger on it, numbers can explain to them why Lebanon should be their central cause, and why Lebanon better sign peace with Israel, regardless of what happens between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In 2010, Lebanon’s GDP stood at $45 billion. By 2022, it had dropped to less than half, at $21 billion, roughly where it was in 2005. Lebanon’s population also started declining in 2016, standing at 5.3 million in 2023, the same level it was in 2012. For comparison purposes, consider that Jordan’s GDP stood at $16.6 billion in 2005, and grew to $47.5 billion in 2022.
Even in Palestine, “the central cause” that the Lebanese think should top their priorities, the Palestinian GDP doubled in 2022 to $20 billion, from little less than $10 billion in 2010.
Like in Jordan, the Palestinian GDP and population have been growing steadily over the past few decades. Only in Lebanon, both the GDP and population have been shrinking, while Lebanon’s intellectuals think their focus should be Gaza. And like the Lebanese would say: “Before you focus all your energy on Gaza, go find toilet paper for your airport.”